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The PSAT's Genius Grant, Part 2

The continuing saga of rabid grammarians, Toni Morrison, and the nature of genius.

6:50 AM, Jun 13, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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AFTER PUBLISHING a brief attack on the literary cheerleading and politically correct logic of a PSAT question recently, I myself became the object of attack from grammarians, a good share of people who think I'm stupid, and violent Toni Morrison partisans. Some days, it's just not worth checking your e-mail.

The PSAT question--for the silent majority of readers to whom the start of all this lacks the immediacy of a freshly opened wound--asked students to identify the grammatical error, if any, in the following sentence: "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to write novels that arise from and express the injustices suffered by African Americans." According to the author of the test, Educational Testing Service, the sentence contained no errors. In the news story that brought this question to public attention, a journalism teacher had argued that, according to some (but not all) grammar authorities, the sentence did contain an error: It was incorrect for "her" to refer to Toni Morrison when the actual subject-noun of the sentence was "Toni Morrison's genius." By such doctrine, Toni Morrison was not a part of the sentence--only her genius was--and therefore couldn't be the subject of a pronounal reference.

The journalism teacher won his argument, because the sentence did contain what some authorities consider to be an error. In my article, I mucked the difference by suggesting that the journalism teacher had "proven" (my unfortunate word) there was an error in the sentence. To any readers who needed extra doses of blood-pressure medicine due to my careless rendering, I apologize.

The anti-Skinner forces had already found a powerful champion, however, in Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford, who attacked me in the New York Times. Nunberg, I learned from his homepage, writes lovely pieces about language that are lucid and well-informed. Needless to say, it's not everyday one gets slapped around by a real scholar, in the Times no less.

Here's the climactic punch from the Times piece: "It was revealing how easily Mr. Skinner's indignation encompassed both the grammatical and cultural implications of the sentence. In recent decades, the defense of usage standards has become a flagship issue for the cultural right: the people who are most vociferous about grammatical correctness tend to be those most dismissive of the political variety."

Nunberg's swipe was more eloquent than the sputtering e-mail that called me a "prescriptivist authoritarian." And, to boot, Nunberg found a sentence in another article of mine where I violated the rule I claimed was "proven" to be correct. Interestingly, Nunberg passed on the opportunity to disagree with my real complaints about the PSAT sentence.

Which are: (1) The sentence presents as the working of genius the writing of novels that "arise from and express the injustices African Americans have suffered." (2) The sentence assumes Toni Morrison to be in possession of genius.

First off, any time a writer is called a genius or is said to have a genius for something or other, a rather exalted apposition or personal quality is being ushered into view. Genius, at least in literary discussions, is not the commonplace "ability" to write novels that reflect the experience of a given group of people. If that were so, every novelist who wrote about the black experience would be a genius. Another problem is that the PSAT's formulation forecloses debate by an implicit threat that to disagree is to adopt an immoral and socially unacceptable position. Look at it this way: If writing about the black experience makes an author a genius, what then of the person who denies this genius? Is he somehow a denier of the importance of the black experience?

To my utter shock, this sense of the sentence generated its own share of controversy, as if the PSAT wasn't saying it was an example of genius to write "novels that arise from and express . . ." For those of you still following along, I present this parallel sentence, which follows the PSAT formulation. "His limitless wealth enabled him to buy whatever he wanted." Ergo, without limitless wealth, he could not buy whatever he wanted. Similarly: Without genius, Toni Morrison would not be able to write "novels that arise from and express . . ." The PSAT sentence makes genius a precondition of writing such novels.